Photography as a strategic tool in political communication. A comparative study of Barack Obama and Donald Trump

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

12 Pages, Grade: 15,5/20 ("sehr gut")


Photography as a strategic tool in political communication

Political communication can be defined as "an interactive process concerning the transmission of information among politicians, the news media and the public.”[1] It can appear on different levels (e.g. between political actors themselves or between the politicians and the media) and in different directions (top-down from political authorities to the public or vice-versa).[2]

There is also different tools for political communication, of which one has become ever more important in the last years: imagery language, which can, in fact, contribute to a large extent to how people assess something or somebody.[3] Photography as a such is often used for political purposes in a "communicative context”.[4] Even though pictures leave more latitude for interpretation, their message can sometimes reach a certain target audience even better than linguistic communication since the former are "perceived more emotional and more holistic” considering that one single picture can often better and more efficiently transmit certain messages than for example long speeches.[5]

Additionally, tremendous changes in the media landscape and in media consumer behaviour have resulted in an ever higher importance of images for political communication and their effect on public opinion.[6] Television and even more Social Media are nowadays two crucial pillars for political marketing as they are the main source for images.[7] Building a certain narrative for political personalities, hence reinforcing their personal and professional reputation, is one main objective of today’s political communication for which the appropriate (self-)staging, including physical appearance, via powerful visual imagery is key.[8] In other words: "the struggle for the gain or maintenance of power is always also a struggle for pictures”.[9]

Barack Obama's and Donald Trump's political communication and core messages

Two men who were actually successful in their ‘struggle for power’ are Barack Obama and Donald Trump who were both elected President of the United States. Obama came into power in January 2009 and was re-elected for another four years in 2012.[10] Trump won the presidential election for Obama’s succession in 2016 and was sworn into office in January 2017.[11]

Even though Obama and Trump have held the same public office, they have very different ways of political communication and political messages. A message in a sense of political communication can be defined as "a short, easily understood piece of communication” which, in our case, transmits the stance of a politician.[12]

One the one side, Barack Obama’s style of political communication can be synoptically described as optimistic, inclusive, unifying and mostly factual, even if sometimes emotional.[13] It is also important to state that he has been representing a type of political leader from a new generation, thus "he embodies change”[14] which is especially appealing to young people (and voters).[15] In Obama’s political communication, implicitly and explicitly, the values of pluralism, multiculturalism and diversity play a key role going along with an emphasis that - despite the high degree of heterogeneity of the U.S. society - "we are, and always will be, the United States of America”[16].[17] Subsequently, important elements of his core message have been since the beginning hope, change and optimism, as his slogan from the presidential campaign 2008 "Yes, we can” illustrates.[18]

Donald Trump in contrast uses a communication strategy that is characterised by an emotional, divisive (referring to both the U.S. internal and the international level) and pessimistic rhetoric that underlines the flaws and shortcomings of the United States, a country that he sees "in serious trouble”.[19] He emphasises for instance on the, in his view, high crime rate in America and therefore calls for a more severe enforcement of "law and order”.[20] Apart from internal security, external and economic security issues (for example Islamic terrorist threats, unemployment or trade deficits) also play a big role in Trump’s communication strategy.[21] Therefore, strengthening the military and massive infrastructure programmes are among Trump’s most insistent messages.[22] Another one is that President Trump "is looking out for the American workers who Washington has left behind”.[23] Furthermore, as the last quote demonstrates, Trump’s communication is marked by an anti-elitist rhetoric, that seeks to be the voice of and to appeal to the working and middle class.[24]

However, Trump has not only been listing all types of alleged problems in the United States but taking use of a "problem/solution marketing formula” by naming all the flaws stated above, thus triggering dissatisfaction, and then presenting himself as the "change agent” to solve them.[25] Trump constantly stresses that he "alone can fix it” (referring to all those problems stated above) and can therefore be considered as a representative of a "personalized presidency”.[26] Lastly, his campaign catchphrase and core message "Make America Great Again” densify the key features of his communication strategy, especially the ‘problem/solution marketing formula’.[27]

How does the official picture language of the Obama and Trump serve as a strategic tool to emphasise their political messages?

The ‘struggle for pictures’ mentioned above is particularly fierce in the United States which some observers describe as a "visual culture”.[28] Part of this is a communication strategy of the Presidential Office of the United States (‘The White House’) seeking "to create a visual narrative that casts the president in a very favourable light”.[29] Like this, the American President’s public presence is supposed to reach the electorate on an ideational, factual and emotional level.[30] Official photographs are one important element of this public representation, especially for the emotional level.

In the following, I will examine by means of official photographs of Barack Obama and Donald Trump published on online platforms of the White House, the Presidents and the official photographers, how these are used in a ‘communicative context’ to reinforce the political core messages of both U.S. presidents.[31] I argue that in both cases the visual imagery is supposed to underline their stances and reputation but can do so only to a certain extent due to the non-verbal character of photography.


[1] P. Norris, “Political Communications”, in Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Harvard University, 16 February 2004, p. 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] H. Williams, “Power to the pictures: The evolution of propaganda”, The Independent, 9 September 2010.

[4] M. Klemm, “Bilder der Macht. Wie sich Spitzenpolitiker visuell inszenieren (lassen) -

eine bildpragmatische Analyse“, in H. Diekmannshenke, M. Klemm & H. Stöckl (eds.), Bildlinguistik, Berlin, Erich-Schmidt-Verlag, 2011, pp. 188, 190.

[5] Ibid., pp. 188-189.

[6] P. de Charentenay, “La puissance sans rivale des images”, Études - Revue de culture contemporaine, 1 April 2006 & Williams op. cit.

[7] “En politique, une image pour faire la différence“, Les Echos, 14 March 2012.

[8] Ibid.

[9] I. Jung, “Der Rücktritt im Bild. Überlegungen zu einem vernachlässigten politischen Phänomen“ [Resignation in pictures. Thoughts about a neglected phenomenon], in Wilhelm Hofmann (ed.), Bildpolitik - Sprachpolitik. Untersuchungen zur politischen Kommunikation in der entwickelten Demokratie [Image policy - Language

policy. Examinations on politicial communication in the developed democracy], Münster, LIT Verlag, 2006, quoted in Klemm, op. cit, p. 190.

[10] The White House, “President Barack Obama”, unknown date.

[11] The White House, “Donald J. Trump”, unknown date.

[12] D. Lilleker, “Key Concepts in Political Communication”, London, SAGE Publications Ltd, 2006, p. 122.

[13] J. Fallows, “Obama, Explained”, The Atlantic, 1 March 2012, C. Lozada, “The self-referential presidency of Barack Obama”, Washington Post, 15 December, 2016, & B. Wallace-Wells, “Obama’s Narrator”, New York Times, 1 April 2007.

[14] J. Dickerson, “Hope Inc. - How Obama's message found its mark.”, Slate, 3 January 2008.

[15] Dickerson op. cit., & Fallows, op. cit.

[16] Quoted in “Obama acceptance speech in full”, The Guardian, 5 November 2008.

[17] Fallows, op. cit., P. Hammack “The Political Psychology of Personal Narrative: The Case of Barack Obama” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2010, p. 184 & Wallace-Wells, op. cit..

[18] N. Confessore “How he won - The Message: The Reselling of President Obama”, New York Times, 18 October 2013, Lozada, op. cit. “The self-referential presidency of Barack Obama”, & M. McGuire, “Three

Simple Words: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Slogan ‘Yes We Can’”, Advances in Communication Theory and Research, Vol. 3, 2010.

[19] Quoted in C. Campbell, “Here are the big ideas in Donald Trump's presidential campaign”, Business Insider, 16 June 2015.

[20] Quoted in T. Keller, “How Donald Trump can - shudder - win”, The Globe and Mail, 28 September 2016.

[21] Campbell, op. cit., “The Message at the Core of Trump’s Election - Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway says it was all about security”, The Wall Street Journal, 21 November 2016 & A. Vitali, “Why President Donald Trump Changed His Tone”, NBC News, 1 March 2017.

[22] Campbell, op. cit. & D. Lamothe, “Trump promises ‘great rebuilding of the Armed Forces’ while signing executive order at the Pentagon”, Washington Post, 27 January 2017.

[23] The White House, “President Trump Delivers on Jobs for the American People”, 24 March 2017.

[24] D. Horsey, “Trump's simple message may carry him to the White House”, The Los Angeles Times, 25 February 2016 & The Wall Street Journal, op. cit.

[25] C. Rivero, “How marketing helped Donald Trump win the 2016 election”, The Washington Post, 17 November 2016.

[26] Lozada, op. cit., “The self-referential presidency of Barack Obama”.

[27] C. Lozada, “Donald Trump’s celebrity won him the White House. It could destroy his presidency.”, Washington Post, 11 November 2016.

[28] C. Cillizza, “The power of political images”, Washington Post, 4 May 2011.

[29] Ibid.

[30] J. Fallows, op. cit.

[31] Due to the limited word count of this paper I will exemplify each finding with only one image as a source (even though there are generally many more) from one of the Presidential or White House online platforms. Those I used for Barack Obama are:

https ://www.

https ://

https ://

For Donald Trump I used: https ://www. (all websites retrieved last time on 4 April 2017). Additionally, I have compiled a list with numerous further examples which can be made available upon request.

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Photography as a strategic tool in political communication. A comparative study of Barack Obama and Donald Trump
15,5/20 ("sehr gut")
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Obama, Trump, Kommunikation, Politische Kommunikation, Social Media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
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Benedikt Weingärtner (Author), 2017, Photography as a strategic tool in political communication. A comparative study of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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